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Advocacy Update: Senators Outraged by Decreased Research Funding
By Greg Brozeit

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) reacted angrily to testimony by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni and other health research advocates that painted a grim picture for the advancement of federally funded medical research. Sen. Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for health funding, called on advocacy groups around the nation to pressure their senators, representatives, and the White House to reverse the negative funding trend for the National Institutes of Health at a hearing on May 19, 2006 in Washington, DC.

According to a report in CQ HealthBeat, "the nation is at risk of losing much of the payoff from the 1998-2003 doubling of the NIH budget because of persistent flat funding" since then.

NIH Director Zerhouni said that the "most important impact on research" of the funding decline over the past three years "is loss of scientists." Richard Knapp, chairman of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research Funding, testified that the flat funding of NIH since 2003 lost more than $3 billion of funding since 2003, translating into an 11 percent loss of purchasing power for NIH. If the administration's proposal for fiscal year 2007 were to pass, it would mean a loss of at least 1,570 research grants as compared to 2004.

Zerhouni added that "medical research cannot be funded through ups and downs. We have to sustain investment over time."

Zerhoui's comments are particularly distressing for cancer advocates who understand that we now live in the most promising time to make many—if not most—cancers chronic conditions in the foreseeable future.

Sen. Specter said advocacy groups should hold protests against 27 Republican senators who voted against the Specter-Harkin Amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution to increase NIH funding. "You ought to march on them in their cities...This is a battle that has to be waged by the 110 million Americans that are suffering from these illnesses in the United States," said Specter at the hearing.

Sen. Harkin also commented, "We did not work hard to double the funding of NIH to have it plateau off."

House Puts Off Tough Decision to Pass Budget

The House of Representatives passed the fiscal year 2007 Budget Resolution on May 18, 2006 by a 218-210 vote, thereby avoiding an arcane procedural motion which would have allowed the leadership to set funding caps for appropriators without a chamber-wide vote.

Although $4.1 billion was shifted from defense spending to medical programs, it fell far short of the $7.2 billion increase approved by the Senate. Under the leadership of Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE), the bill included a $3.1 billion "reserve fund" which, in plain English, means that it is the intention of the House to find additional programs to cut to offset the proposed increase.

If successful, taken together the two amounts in the House bill would equal an increase approved earlier this year by the Senate. But the real effect is to continue an uncertain trend for the remainder of the legislative year.

The House also rejected the President's proposal to cut Medicare spending by $36 billion over five years in its Budget Resolution.

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